Delhi Proustians – Swann’s Way, Anniversary Edition
On turning 100.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Of course you have read this book. But not everybody is like you. Apparently a large part of the world is scared of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a seven-volume novel that has more than a million words and more than 200 characters.
Written in French, the novel reached a milestone in November 2013 when its first and perhaps most widely-read volume, Swann’s Way, completed 100 years. In time for the centenary celebrations, the US-based Yale University Press published the first extensively annotated edition of this volume. It includes substantial corrections and revisions of the original English version that is itself considered a classic.
The book has been annotated by William C. Carter, the author of the landmark Marcel Proust: A Life. His notes are neatly positioned on the margin of the pages. Their minimalist prose effortlessly brings out the novel’s biographical, historical, social, trivial and always entertaining contexts. For instance, while referring to the newspaper editor to whom Proust dedicated the first volume, Mr Carter tells us the chosen gentleman was shot dead at his office by the stylish wife of a former prime minister against whom his esteemed daily, Le Figaro, was directing an intense political campaign.
Proust would have loved such titbits. Indeed, his novel’s incomprehensible nature is merely a rumour. You, of course, had a great time with the book, so you know very well that it particularly suits the reading requirements of those newspaper readers who are instinctively drawn towards gossip columns. Here is a comedy of the idle rich, and their parties, pretensions, plots, dresses and sex lives. Proust paints the backstabbing world of the upper-crust salons in Paris with such universal undertones that you might as well be reading about the drawing-room politics of Shanti Niketan bungalows in south Delhi.
The most graceful thing about the new edition is the unobtrusive character of Mr Carter’s encyclopaedic annotations. They avoid dissecting the novel and robbing it of the mysteries of its pleasures. Instead, the notes and commentaries act as a gentle guide to the significant backstories that help us bond with Proust’s world. Mr Carter plans to annotate the subsequent volumes, too.
Meanwhile, the English-language readers who have never tried the novel finally get a perfect entry point to begin the journey of a lifetime. Those of us who have read Proust more than once will find a more engaging version of the French original. And those unfortunate friends of ours who are not into any kind of books might acquire a copy just for the sake of its edible-looking cover — it shows a madeleine. The little sponge cake makes for an iconic scene in the first volume when Proust’s narrator dips it… but of course you know the story.
A mouthful of Marcel
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